My name is Dan Bayliss and I’m going to be completely honest with you: I broke the University of Virginia student honor code. With the impending vote on fundamental changes to the honor code at the University, it is important that I stress that the concept of being “honest” is what’s really being examined. The proposed changes acknowledge that reluctant witnesses distrust the process, accused students lie with little consequence, inexperienced juries give out inconsistent verdicts and honor is becoming less significant in the lives of U.Va. students and faculty.
In my case, I was completely honest with the professor who approached me about an assignment that I took for granted. Under the circumstances, I felt I did the right thing, and yet I still had my degree taken away from me.
The incident occurred in September 2009 during my last year as a graduate nursing student. In July 2010, I completed the requirements for a master’s in nursing and stood with my classmates during graduation ceremonies. I was pinned by the dean of the Nursing School, a traditional gesture at all nursing schools in this country. However, in September following my graduation, I was found guilty of plagiarism by a jury of my peers and, as the single sanction of the honor code dictates, was subsequently dismissed from the University and my diploma was revoked.
My intent in sharing my personal experience is twofold. First, I want to bring about awareness to all U.Va. students and faculty about what an honor accusation really does to someone, and second, I want to explain that a student who was truthful and forthcoming after an honor report has been filed can still do the honorable thing.
The details of my trial are irrelevant for this article and the content of my trial will remain anonymous to protect the individuals involved in the case. As controversial as the honor code has been in the past, I understand and accept the consequences of violating it and am not proud of my error in judgment. Unfortunately, in all my reading on the honor code, I do not remember ever coming across an account of how an honor charge impacts a student, psychologically, emotionally and even financially, so I’m here to tell you how it feels to be one of the accused.
Since the onset of my honor investigation, I have gone through the gamut of emotions moving from guilt, shame, anger, and depression and back again. No student should deny the demands of attending such a prestigious university as U.Va., but to add an honor charge on top of that creates a chaotic, destructive living situation that lasts long after being expelled. For me, it was very difficult walking on Grounds feeling that I did not belong there because of the shame that I felt. In my last year at U.Va., my self-confidence quickly deteriorated as the reality of not being a U.Va. graduate took hold. Unfortunately, once my trial was over and I was no longer a student, the situation got worse before it got better.
The year after being expelled was easily one of the most difficult of my life; the process of putting the pieces back together was so emotionally draining that I spent several days in a wellness recovery center because the psychological burden of an honor charge was too much to bear. After my dismissal from the University, I could not find a full-time job in my former field of study or in my new field of study, since my degree had been retracted. I understood the financial risk of leaving one career to go back to school for a master’s degree at U.Va., but I was certain I’d have great career potential as a U.Va.-trained nurse. Instead, I left the University with no job prospects, no degree and over $100,000 in student loan debt. I was hit with mounting bills, a mortgage foreclosure, a string of low paying part-time jobs. The results were crushing depression, stress and financial disaster. In my depressive state, I withdrew from friends, family and loved ones. It was more than a year before I was able to secure a decent position but had to leave Charlottesville: a town I came to love and considered home for me. I don’t know how I would have survived without loyal friends that helped me get back on my feet. Looking back now, I know I did the right thing by being upfront and honest about my mistake, but in my lowest days, I wondered: “Had I lied, would I be a U.Va. alumnus right now?”
Under the current honor system in place, I was faced with two choices after being confronted by my professor: I could admit my error in judgment or lie about it. That was a pivotal point in the process for me. Wanting to maintain some measure of personal integrity and avoid another mistake, I admitted to my professor that my paper wasn’t 100 percent my own work. My honesty came at a terrible price. Furthermore, being forthcoming throughout the entire honor deliberations ultimately doomed my chances because in the end, there was nothing to argue, which made it easy for the panel to find me guilty.
Soon, another student vote on fundamental changes to the honor code will be upon U.Va. students. The changes will encourage students to be honest and own up to their mistakes through a new “informed retraction” option. An informed retraction allows a student who comes forward and honestly admits guilt the opportunity to learn from his or her mistake and rejoin the community of trust after a year. On the other hand, a defiant student who continues to lie deserves expulsion from the University.
Nothing I write here can adequately convey my immense disappointment that I am not a proud U.Va. graduate after all, and I feel my personal recovery will continue for a long period of time. Most importantly, I know now my personal honor is still intact because of how I conducted myself during the honor process despite being expelled from one of the most well-respected universities in this country.
To the students at U.Va., vote to make the necessary changes to the honor code knowing that you have an extraordinary opportunity to redefine honor into what it is really intended to be.
Dan Bayliss is a former graduate student at the University’s Nursing School.